Sapphire and Steel - Assignments One to Three Review
'All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned...' (opening titles voice over)
Sapphire and Steel are a mysterious, otherworldly duo, played by stars Joanna Lumley and David McCallum in this fondly remembered TV serial from the late seventies-early eighties. Sent by an unknown power, arriving by unknown means, Sapphire and Steel's assignment is to detect and repair breaks in the structure of time, by whatever means necessary. Each displays character traits and special powers that echo their names: Sapphire uses charm to find her way to the heart of a situation, emotion draining from her face when it no longer suits her purpose. Sapphire also has the ability to roll back the passage of time, accompanied by a suitable chromakey'd blue glow in her eyes. Steel meanwhile can call upon physical strength and, if necessary, lower his body temperature to well below zero. A brusque, assertive, and occasionally morally ambiguous character, Steel counterpoints his partner's gentler approach perfectly.
Those of you who recall your high school chemistry will already have spotted that - despite the implication of the title sequence narration (quoted above) - neither Sapphire nor Steel actually features on the periodic table. This contradiction, presumably intentional, serves as a motif for the series, representing perhaps a deliberate dislocation from the world of hard science and objective reality. Indeed, Sapphire and Steel is by no means a traditional science fiction series, but rather owes more in tone and visual style to the ghost story. There's an emphasis on old buildings, shadows and spectres, and an attempt to make the common place and ordinary - clocks and paintings, railway stations and nursery rhymes - sinister and unsettling. In the world of Sapphire and Steel, time itself becomes a strange, organic thing, an unseen corridor that surrounds us, through which things may break through into our reality, and snatch objects or people away...
Presented in this DVD boxset - part one of two sets - are the first three Sapphire and Steel serials:
Disc One/Assignment 1 (6 episodes/150 mins approx)
In an isolated house, a boy reluctantly does his homework whilst upstairs his parents and little sister happily read nursery rhymes together. One by one, the clocks in the house come to a stop - by the time the last pendulum freezes, the children's parents are gone. Sapphire and Steel soon arrive on the scene, and must attempt to gain the children's co-operation as they try to retrieve the missing parents and stop the force that is threatening to break through and overwhelm the house.
This opening adventure sets the tone for much of the rest of the series, with numerous apparitions, eerie doubles, and creeping patches of sinister light all combining to provide a memorable whole. The use of nursery rhymes as a catalyst for time to break through is particularly effective, the audience being offered a disquieting reminder of the historical origins of innocent pre-school entertainment: reciting 'Ring a Ring a Roses' causes images of the black death to manifest, 'Goosey Goosey Gander' brings forth soldiers to ransack the house, and so on. Child stars Tamasin Bridge and Steven O'Shea put in respectable performances, with O'Shea in particular impressing when called upon to demonstrate a conflict in allegiance between assisting Sapphire and Steel, and helping 'something' that has taken on the appearance of one of his parents. Also making an appearance is Lead, another elemental agent. Played with undoubted gusto by Val Pringle, Lead's repeated outbursts of uncalled for hearty laugher did unfortunately rather remind this reviewer of The Simpsons's Dr Hibberd...
Disc Two/Assignment Two (8 episodes/200 mins approx)
On a deserted railway station, gentle ghost hunter Tully (Gerald James) attempts to contact the spirit of a young soldier who died in world war one. Outside on the platform, it seems to be a different season, and spectral flowers mysteriously bloom...
Due to the vagaries of late seventies television strikes, Assignment Two is probably the Sapphire and Steel series which the non-fan viewer will be most familiar with, and is arguably also the best in the run. Clocking in at eight instalments, it's easily the most epic adventure of the series, and can afford to devote much screen time to the careful, atmosphere building depiction of events: an episode long séance in which Lumley is called upon to act as if possessed by different spirits being particularly effective. Shaun O'Riordan and David Foster's direction is inventive throughout, whether constructing montages of battle sounds and images to convey the horror of war, or inventively creating the thin atmosphere of a doomed submarine through little more than lighting, camera angles, and the utter conviction of his lead performers. Moments such as the submarine sequence, in which television proudly displays its theatrical roots, are amongst the series' most effective. They perhaps also provide a key as to whether the contemporary viewer will find much to enjoy here: if your tastes run mainly to expensive, empty visuals then you are likely to find Sapphire and Steel fairly dated. On the other hand, if you relish drama carried by dialogue and performance, you'll discover much to enjoy.
Mention too should be made at this point of Cyril Ornadel's incidental music. Ornadel creates an effective score throughout the series, here developing a jangling, discordant theme that heralds the approach of a creeping, malevolent darkness. If the output of the BBC Radiophonic workshop is often heralded as influential on today's dance music and electronica (notably by bands such as Orbital), then Ornadel's work must surely pre-figure some of the work of acts like Portishead and Goldfrapp.
Disc Three/Assignment Three (6 episodes/150 mins)
Day 27, 9.34 AM. Unseen observers watch as Rothywn (Catherine Hall) tackles the hazards of simple food preparation in the kitchen. No, not another day in The Big Brother house, but rather a glimpse into a time capsule sent from the far future to observe and record the procedures of times past. Unfortunately for the craft's occupants, they are far from safe in their hermetically sealed environment - something inside threatens their lives, and the structure of time itself.
After two adventures in which Sapphire and Steel confront problems that utilise the rich imagery of times past, the third serial's venture into the present feels initially somewhat ill at ease with the series format. This is perhaps due more to a shift in location than any real drop in script quality - the brightly lit studio set with its (then contemporary) nasty eighties modernist furnishings is hard pushed to compete with the atmosphere developed in the moodily lit sets of Assignments One and Two. Nevertheless, there's fun to be had here, with David Collings as the raffish, likeable Silver amusingly causing rifts in Sapphire and Steel's partnership. There's also a thoughtful commentary on the ethics of man's use of animals, with the ideas behind the script perhaps shining in a way that the more futuristic imagery of this series is hard pressed to match in execution.
Menus and Extras
A swirling Sapphire and Steel logo leads to an appealing menu screen, with options presented over a loop adapted from the series titles. Episodes are split into four chapters - a chapter stop immediately after the cliffhanger reprise that opens each instalment would have been a useful addition, so allowing the eager viewer to continue directly with the narrative without recourse to the fast forward.
Extras are spread across all three discs and are as follows: a 1979 ITC press release covering season one (Assignments One and Two); a TV Times articles promoting the first couple of episodes; a stills gallery of around thirty publicity shots and behind the scenes images from all three serials; an ITC press release for season two; contemporary interviews with Lumley and McCallum from 1981 and 1979 TV Times respectively; screenographies for both leads, including entries up to 2002. The press releases in particular make for interesting reading, providing some nice contextual information on the ideas behind the series, and the previous theatre and screen roles of the casts.
It's a shame that some form of contribution from writer P.J. Hammond, or producer/director Shaun O'Riordan was not included, or a commentary with stars Lumley and McCallum (both are reportedly still fond of the series). Even if original material could not be produced, other possibilities to compliment the existing pleasant-but-static extras might have included - clearances allowing - the feature on Sapphire and Steel from Channel 4's Top Ten Sci-Fi programmes, or an extract from the edition of Wogan (a BBC talk show) that featured McCallum and was guest-hosted by Lumley. Hopefully, box set two will offer an opportunity to remedy some of these omissions.
Picture and Sound
All episodes are presented as produced in 4:3 aspect, with two channel mono sound. There's the odd patch of background hiss when sound levels are low, but dialogue and music remain clear throughout: basically, the soundtrack offers a good quality representation of what was technically possible at time of production. Television enthusiasts will be interested to know that the majority of episodes retain their 'ATV colour production' caption at the tail of the end credits sequence - curiously a simple fade-to-black has been substituted for episodes two to six of Assignment One. Advert breaks, originally a feature of Assignment Three, have been subject to inoffensive editing consisting of a fade-to-black, with action continuing almost immediately afterwards.
Picture quality is quite variable across this release, so it's worth tackling this on a disc-by-disc basis. Assignment One shows some evidence of picture smearing on movement, but comparison to the early nineties (unrestored) video release reveals similar symptoms, so I'm inclined to attribute this to the combination of low-key studio lighting and contemporary video technology. All-in-all then, a very respectable transfer. By contrast, Assignment Two demonstrates distinct signs of over-compression: a two disc release for this lengthy archive serial, in which deep light and shadow play such a significant role, would surely have yielded better results. Assignment Three stands somewhere between the two: the bright studio videotape sequences look very good indeed, whilst the film-based location work is fairly ghastly; close examination revealing distracting picture detail movement in different directions. Unsurprisingly for a production of this age sourced from analogue videotape, there's occasional evidence of tape dropout present through all three serials. This is however rarely distracting, and only in Assignment One: episode four did I notice some persistent examples that perhaps should have been remedied with a little restoration work.
The enigmatic Sapphire and Steel receive a DVD release of mixed quality. If you're already a fan of this series, this probably isn't going to be the 'ultimate collection' you hoped for, but may still offer a welcome upgrade from VHS. If you have some nostalgic memories of the series, or have yet to sample its bizarre world, then it's well worth investigating - but don't blame me if you never look at a clock, or an old painting, in quite the same way again...